Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Who else shaped the Manufacturing world?

I was challenged by the reviewer in the Historian Magazine that How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World didn’t say much about other countries. I could counter by saying that my book’s title implied this. However, her point is important and I am undertaking some explorations to discover what was going on elsewhere.

My starting point, as with my book, is the Great Exhibition of 1851.

James Ward, the celebrated animal artist, wrote a book on the Great Exhibition entitled The World and its Workshops. He is viewing the exhibition from the point of view of a British visitor comparing the produce of his home country with that of foreigners. In relation to this he is keen to encourage the development of other nations for they will then become better customers for British goods.

He focuses in particular on the position of the ‘artisan’ whom he places alongside the manufacturer and the customer. He picks up concerns expressed by Ruskin that the British artisan working in a factory is ‘only a pair of hands’ waiting in the labour market for the chance of being the lowest bidder for employment, instead of going to the capital market to find the highest budder for his services. Artisans should also be artists contributing to the design of what he makes.

Ward makes an interesting comparison with France where there is little child labour. He sees the benefit in this in the better education offered to French children which he suggests equips them with taste where comparing manufactured objects.

He sees the English as supreme in the manufacture of items to meet the ordinary wants and comforts of the world, but lagging behind in beauty of design, artistic conception and skill and in decorative art.

He confesses that his fascination is in machinery. He harks back to his mid-life when machines were seen as the enemy of the artisan, and we can recall the Luddites. Forty years later he sees the machine as the extension of the human being augmenting his manual capacity. 

In terms of inventions, he singles out William Lea for his stocking-frame, Hargreaves, and Jacquard who would delight in seeing his invention improved by a Belgian. I return to Jacquard later.

He makes another interesting observation about raw materials, suggesting that the English habit of buying raw materials from countries purchasing English finished goods may put the English at a disadvantage if better raw materials are available elsewhere. He suggests that the exhibition would offer an opportunity for comparison which could influence future purchasing decisions.

He then turns to the categories of exhibits starting with steel and is clear that ‘the art of making steel of the finest quality is almost exclusively confined to this country’. In France and Germany, whilst the theories are well understood, the resulting product is inferior. Sheffield was the home of steel production as was Manchester for cotton and Leeds for wool.

Russian and Swedish raw materials are praised as superior to the British, but even in Sweden the final product doesn’t match its English counterpart. German steel producers, Krupp and Hundsdecker, are mentioned but not praised.

The position of American is important. We are talking of a period ten years before the Civil War when industry was highly fragmented albeit equally energetic. Giants of steel making like Bethlehem Steel would only start as iron founders in 1856, and not take on the name of Bethlehem Steel until 1899. It would of course go on to produce steel for America’s iconic buildings and bridges.  

Swords, guns and pistols follow on from steel. ‘If due regard be paid to quality as well as to price, Birmingham has no equal on the continent.’ It is worth adding that Ward was impressed by an American product only later to discover that its was derived from an earlier British invention. He was also impressed by Liege in Belgium which he says has become in relation to muskets the Birmingham of the world. He does though suggest that the cost advantage they achieve is the result of using inferior metal in manufacture. He looks in detail at the process of making swords and sees the British as superior in use to both the Damascus and Toledo more decorative blades. In looking at gun making he refers to the Birmingham workshop system suggesting that there is no such thing a single gun maker. He looks at rifles and, once again, sees the superiority of the British.

He then turns his attention to copper, brass and mixed metals for mainly ornamental use. He describes the making of steel pens and then pin-making and wire-drawing and the making of buttons before moving on to electro-plate.

He includes a chapter on typography, lithography and stereotype. This is of personal interest since only four years earlier my great-great uncle, William Smith Williams, had given a paper On Lithography to the Royal Society of Arts. The paper had been prepared in conjunction with Sir Henry Cole who was significant in the creation of the Great Exhibition. Charles Hullmandel, my great-great uncle’s employer, was French and it was from France that lithography came and so perhaps it is not surprising that Ward sees French lithographs as superior. The same is not true of typography where the English have the lead. Stereotype was an English invention and the English were still the masters.

We then arrive at the core of Ward’s reflections, those on machinery. ‘Upon entering the department of machinery in motion, the casual visitor is in some measure amazed and bewildered by the continued whirring and clatter which surrounds him in every direction.’ The first machine is an old had printing press producing barely a score of copies an hour; there is then ‘Applegarth’s latest improvement’ producing many thousands. From there it is textile machinery, the first producing bobbin-net, the second cotton yarn and silk warps and then Ward’s favourite, the Jacquard machine – ‘a monument of man’s intuitive sagacity’.

Siemens Brothers who manufactured the electric motor for the Brighton railway was emphatically British. William Siemens family was German and the two worked closely as did inventors and manufacturers of many nations



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How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World is now available to pre-order

Phil Hamlyn Williams has completed his sixth book beginning an exploration of British manufacturing. His great-grandfather exhibited at the ...